Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On Reason

An excellent post on the evolutionary function of reasoning - it is to win arguments, rather than find truth.

- "However, for communication to be possible, listeners have to have ways to discriminate reliable, trustworthy information from potentially dangerous information—otherwise speakers would be wont to abuse them through lies and deception. One way listeners and speakers can improve the reliability of communication is through arguments. The speaker gives a reason to accept a given conclusion. The listener can then evaluate this reason to decide whether she should accept the conclusion." (Richard Rorty on reason as a "clever way of talking about things" - check)

- "When people reason alone, there will often be nothing to hold their confirmation bias in check. This might lead to distortions of their beliefs." (C.S. Peirce on knowledge generation as a social endeavor - check)

- "Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found." (John Maynard Keynes on remorseless logicians ending up in Bedlam - check)

Why anyone would want to base either their epistemology or their methodology on reason is beyond me. At best reasoning is just an internally consistent language with no guarantee of correspondence with the real world. At worst it's not even internally consistent because we don't do it well enough. It's a tool and a useful one. Internally consistent and intelligible languages and grammars are important for thinking things through, after all. But it's not a foundation.


  1. If we had to use nothing but reason, we would eventually have to conclude that just because gravity has worked in the past million years or so of the Earth does not mean it will continue to do so in the future, and we should not count on necessarilly not floating away from the earth's surface within the next second, next hour, or next day.

    Reason is itself unreasonable.

  2. I once found out about a YouTube channel called Beingism, which was trying to create a religion or church of reason.

    I posted such criticisms of rationalism on their page, and obtained some moderate concessions. The man liked my example of a purely reasonable person concluding that a man does not need to have eyes if seeing things makes it more burdensome for him.

  3. Wow, hmm, empiricism vs. idealism, anyone? When Keynes and Rorty create strawmen (the idealism of Plato is essentially what they are going after here) to attack reason with, it isn't surprising that reason comes out of the fight badly. But the empiricism of Locke, Hume, etc. looks nothing like idealism, yet that empiricism is firmly based on reason. Maybe someone ought to check the confirmation bias of Rorty, Pierce and Keynes.

  4. Who is attacking reason?

    Pointing out what reason is and what it is not - refusing to idealize reason - is not "attacking" it.

    You seem to have a very combative nature, Gary. I raised a concern about market economies yesterday and you somehow got the impression that I was rejecting the market economy, even though I made sure I explicitly stated my support for market economies.

    Noting the limits of something and raising concerns about something is not "attacking".

    Locke, Hume, etc. I think would tend to agree with Rorty and Keynes on many points (certainly not all) if they had the opportunity to read them.

  5. Rorty talks about philosophy (more broad than "reason" now) as a "clever way of talking about" things. It's like a language in other words - a way of connecting ideas and making sense of things.

    The point is only that a solid rationalist project trying to explain something is a great way to organize and present ideas - but that does not guarantee it is some path to an underlying truth. That's not an attack. The English language is the same way. To say "your ability to write eloquently and clearly express ideas does not mean that you have a guarantee of the truth of those ideas or the correspondence of those ideas with reality" is of course not a denigration or an attack on the English language or on quality prose composition. You shouldn't approach it that way.

  6. Daniel,

    "Pointing out what reason is and what it is not..."

    No, what Keynes and Rorty are doing is using a particular notion of reason, one rejected by Locke and Hume.

    "Locke, Hume, etc. I think would tend to agree with Rorty and Keynes on many points..."

    I seriously doubt that. Rorty and Keynes are part of the great turning away from the classical liberal tradition.

    "...and you somehow got the impression that I was rejecting the market economy..."

    That was never my point of course. I am just rather skeptical of the claim that market economies underemploy resources, particularly in comparison to non-market alternatives. Further, I am even more skeptical of the claim that seems to underly such a notion - that of the need of some non-market entity to fix the underemployment kinks.

  7. "I seriously doubt that. Rorty and Keynes are part of the great turning away from the classical liberal tradition."


    OK - whatever, Gary. Time for me to turn to less hopeless endeavors.

  8. http://www.criticalrationalism.net/2010/08/03/the-source-of-justificationism/

  9. Daniel,

    You are currently about as likely to convince me of your position as vice versa; I don't consider that a hopeless endeavor.

  10. "Our biology really tells us that, at our hearts, we're libertarians." - Paul Zak


  11. All manner of epistemology is founded on reason. You cannot dispense with reason, nor can you assume, like Prateek does, that we have "moved away" from reason at all.

    All manner of empiricism and positivism rely on intersubjectively valid premises that rely on reason. In order to make any experiment or observation (such that the sun will rise again), you must assume conditions of regularity and causality. These can only be understood a priori because regularity and causality can never be directly experienced.

    The synthetic a priori is an application of pure reason, and it is the most helpful construct man has ever discovered in divining what is true and what is not true of reality. There is no procedure available to us that allows us to dispense with aprioristic thinking. All methodologies are based on reason.

  12. I was in full agreement with you until you wrote this:

    "in divining what is true and what is not true of reality"

    And then I was OK with the rest of your comment too.

  13. Gary -
    I don't know what it is about Reason.com's videos - they consistently pull little complete non-sequitors out of thin air and act as if it never happened.

    This guy has a great explanation of the discoveries of experimental economics over the last several decades, including some of the blood work that Zak himself has worked on. We've learned a lot about the predisposition of humans to trade and form market institutions. Fantasitc.

    Then he says "our biology tells us that we're libertarians".

    Huh?!?!?! No it doesn't. His research suggested nothing of the sort!

    I know it was a throw-away line to please the crowd, but it's still kind of odd, and its odd how much it happens at Reason.

    It's the same as with James Fallon. He had all this great neuroscience stuff that he was talking about and then wham - out of left field - "libertarians are probably like sociopaths because they're so logical". These guys take really solid scienitific work and then they slam you with the most random stuff to make it relevant to Reason. I suppose what this tells you is that all you need to get an interview is insert allusions to libertarianism as you explain your research, whatever it is :)

  14. The "guy" is Zak.

    It actually does tell us that. Modern liberals talk about markets, but they ignore them every chance that they get and they view them as merely utilitarian mechanisms - they are amoral and ought to be highly constrained because what is moral is government and voting and the like. So yeah, it is a very libertarian P.O.V. to think of markets as moral.

    "I know it was a throw-away line to please the crowd..."

    Then if that is all that it is, why does it bother you?

  15. Right - he was at ASU with Smith and is now at Claremont I believe.

    You misunderstand me - I'm not saying that it's not libertarian to think of markets as moral. I'm saying lots of people recognize the morality of markets and self-organization of markets. Moreover, there's nothing about the fact that we are genetically programmed to truck, barter, and exchange that suggests we are programmed to be libertarians.

    It doesn't bother me - but I do think it's a little disconcerting that libertarians can be so insular in how they uniquely identify themselves with liberty, markets, constitutionality (Spooner disciples excepted), what have you. The exclusivity an insularity is disconcerting because it doesn't bode well for getting along with others in the liberal tradition. That's a concern because I'd personally like to see the liberal tradition expand its reach.

  16. Daniel,

    Why do you disagree with - "in divining what is true and what is not true of reality"?

    I posit that all empirical data we have discovered and made use of has been that of statistical laws and probability (refer to my Logic/Empiricism article on ET). There is no way to establish apodictic certainty to empirical observations. On the other hand, we can certainly discover Truths (with a capital T) about the universe by a bit of a priori pondering.

    That's not to say anything negative about empiricism - I'm just stating a fact of epistemology. We could possibly be wrong about evolution and natural selection, but we cannot be wrong with regards to propositional logic, mathematics, and the synthetic a priori.

  17. Logic ==> Empiricism ==> ______?

    Let's hope we fill in the blank, because whatever it is that economists are doing to answer questions about macro is as useless as logic is for proving most things. {But it certainly employs people unwilling to get real jobs.}

  18. "Wow, hmm, empiricism vs. idealism, anyone?"

    Strange contrast. Peirce was an idealist. The first great modern idealist, Berkeley, was also very much an empiricist. And none of the latter-day British idealist were anti-empiricism, as far as I know.

  19. "We could possibly be wrong about evolution and natural selection, but we cannot be wrong with regards to propositional logic, mathematics, and the synthetic a priori."

    ?! I think people have made plenty of mistakes in all those areas.


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